In a way, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is a lot like many people in New Orleans.
The seven-year veteran isn’t sure how the Saints defense will adjust to placing free safety Rafael Bush on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday after he fractured his right fibula in a game two days earlier.
All he knows is he will directly attack any players subbed in or shuffled around to account for Bush’s absence when the Ravens (6-4) clash with the Saints (4-6) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday night, Flacco assured Wednesday.
“Any time you play guys that haven’t played a lot, you’ve got to go out there and test them and see what they’re made of,” said Flacco, who’s led the Ravens to three AFC title games and a Super Bowl championship captured at the Superdome in early 2013. “I think everybody’s been there at some point, where they haven’t played a ton of games — you ... have a certain feeling in your mind, so it’s our job to make sure we go out there and test everybody and see how everybody’s doing.”
The stance Flacco communicated in a group call with New Orleans media Wednesday is only natural. With Bush sidelined by his broken leg, the Saints were down to one safety (a strongside one) who’s been starting in New Orleans: Kenny Vaccaro, in his second year out of Texas.
There were two other safeties on the roster when Bush was hurt: Marcus Ball and Jamarca Sanford. Neither is a lock to replace Bush.
Ball is a strong safety like Vaccaro, and he is in his first NFL season after playing professionally in Canada for a bit. Listed as Bush’s backup on the Saints’ unofficial depth chart, Sanford just joined the team on Nov. 12 after starting 44 games for the Vikings from 2009-2013.
New Orleans added a fourth safety Wednesday by signing Pierre Warren, an undrafted rookie who had been on the Vikings’ practice squad after attending preseason training camp with the Saints but not making the team. Yet another option is sliding Corey White from the outside cornerback spot he’s been playing for much of this year to safety, which he was drafted out of Samford as by the Saints in 2012. In that case, they could let someone such as veteran Patrick Robinson start in the outside spot White’s been occupying.
No matter what occurs in the Saints defensive backfield, on Monday night, the Ravens won’t be shy about gauging its viability for New Orleans.
That’s not without its risks, even against a team that has lost its last two contests, both at home.
“Whoever it is (the Saints turn to) is not someone that’s been playing back there regularly, so there’s not a lot of (game) tape for us to watch,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday.
“But we look at the scheme, and I’m sure that whoever plays back there will plug into their scheme and play the scheme the way they expect them to play it.”
Those words were echoed by Flacco, who’s completed 219 of his 351 passes (62.4 percent) for a respectable 2,521 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“You ... can look at some film of the guys that have played (free safety for the Saints) and see what they do,” said Flacco, who’s won four of his last five starts on Monday Night Football, three victories of which have been on the road. “But, obviously, it’s not that guy (the Ravens will be facing), so you don’t know if he’s going to jump this and sit back on this or what his tendencies are.”
The Ravens, nonetheless, trust they have the offensive tools necessary to press the Saints in an area where it seems they’re vulnerable, at least on paper.
Chief among them is receiver Steve Smith, who personally experienced 11 wins against the Saints when he was a member of the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers from 2001-2013. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Smith has caught 99 passes for 1,493 yards and 10 touchdowns in 23 career encounters with the Saints, and he’s Flacco’s favorite target this year.
“It’s impressive how a guy of his stature can go up and get a ball and do it so well,” Flacco said of Smith, who tops the Ravens with 49 grabs for 728 yards and four TDs. “In any situation, he knows how to play that ball and go up and meet it with his hands, and that’s a big advantage.”
It’s an advantage Flacco won’t at all mind exploiting if he can in a building where he created some of his dearest memories.
“Obviously,” Flacco said of his fond Super Bowl recollections, “I want to keep them that way.”